The Numbers Game: Part II

IN THE LAST ISSUE of New Directions I dedicated this column to looking at the newly available statistics on church attendance in the CofE. You will recall that these had been released suddenly and without warning after two years’ suppression, just in time for the November Synod timetable to be too late to include any questions about them and to allow debates about future evangelism strategy to go on as if they did not exist.

Many observers of the CofE plc information unit were puzzled by the sudden reversal of policy implied by their publication. Was this a new and voluntary openness, a different approach to the press and to the ordinary punters who pay the bills?

Well, not quite. Learning from the frenzied “spin” machine that has taken the place of parliamentary government, the new CofE was simply putting its own spin on the bad news before someone else published the full facts.

The someone, in this case, was Christian Research UK who, over a number of years, have done unique and valuable research across the churches and provided precisely the kind of data that is essential for any analysis of our present predicament and considerable assistance to strategic planning for any organization that is serious about recovery.

You will not be surprised to know that Christian Research UK did not have an easy time with the CofE. Far from seeing their work as free consultancy, the official line was very frosty and, in some cases, downright paranoid. My own diocese mailed its clergy advising them not to cooperate with any such enquiry; and I believe it was not the only diocese so to do.

This sort of heavy-handed foolishness betrays a complete ignorance of the lives of most parish priests. With an average day bringing fifteen to twenty items of mail, anything that does not require attention finds its way swiftly into that useful wicker filing tray under the desk. Any sensible establishment would have let nature take its course. But alert the independent minded incumbent to its importance by “whipping” against it, and hundreds of priests will retrieve the questionnaire and filling it in straight away. Of course there is an inevitable slant in this method of collection. It is much more likely that the forms will have been filled in by clergy whose parishes are, numerically at least, doing better. Few of us want to sit down and painstakingly rehearse apparent failure on paper. So it is likely that the figures returned to CR, UK are, if anything, more optimistic than the real situation, but still near enough to that reality to be useful.

My friends in the other province always tell me that “the North is different”; and it probably is. Perhaps they were encouraged to fill in the forms up there. At any rate, the foreword for the accompanying book (“The Tide is Running Out”) of analysis has a grateful and commendatory forward by the Archbishop of York for the painstaking work conducted by Dr Peter Brierley and his staff. Dr Brierley is far too gracious to add, “and no thanks to the CofE.”

Well, who are Dr Brierley and Christian Research? Brierley was a statistician in Cabinet Office. He then went to work for the Bible Society and MARC Europe. Christian Research was founded in 1993 because, as most of us recognize in our saner moments, if you don’t know the facts you can’t plan your strategy. Brierley recognized that much church planning was based on ignorance or wishful thinking and decided to use his gifts in a way that might assist the Gospel bearers by letting them see the big picture as well as the local idiosyncrasies.

The big picture is a fascinating one. CR, UK estimate that from 1000 A.D. to 1800 A.D. the percentage of the world’s population that was Christian ran at a steady 19%. The 19th century saw a massive jump in that figure to some 34%, not entirely unconnected, one suspects, with the great imperial adventures.

By 2000 A.D. it has come down to 28% and looks set for persistent decline on purely human demographical grounds. The great population centres and areas of biggest projected growth to 2050 AD are, as yet, out of Christian hands. While India will overtake China, Pakistan and Indonesia will be competing for the places and only the US and parts of Nigeria keep the Christian church in the top half dozen. How little attention the West pays to supporting the persecuted church in China or to its potential as a vital mission field!

Economically resurgent and militarily confident, the worldwide Moslem community has trebled in the last forty years of the old century. Hinduism has grown with its birth rate, but has, in the same period, lost its quiescence and laissez-faire spirituality for a more conscious political identity and, in some cases, militancy.

All is far from gloom for Christianity though. Between 1960 and 2010 the Catholic community worldwide is expected to double to over a thousand million. This involves quadrupling in Africa, doubling in the US and South America and tripling in Asia. It even sees a tiny growth in Europe. Anglicans, over the same period, can expect a 50% increase to 59 million worldwide. All of this latter growth – and the compensation for decline in Europe and America -is accounted for by growth in Africa.

By 2010 African Anglicans will be more numerous than European. It is not clear as to the cash value of the 24 million Anglicans claimed for Europe. (If this is simply the number of Brits who put ‘CofE’ on their forms, then contrasting this with churchgoing of under 1 million puts it in some perspective.) The Orthodox community will, by then, top 140 million, but the most spectacular growth is amongst Pentecostals who will have gone from a base of 12 million to 154 million in fifty years. There is little doubt that a large proportion of that is sheep stealing from the Catholics in South America and Asia, but there is still striking growth in the US which may reflect the boom in rampant emotionalism and self-centred spirituality. It may also reflect a growing preference for biblical teaching and powerful worship.

Methodism is virtually disappearing as a European phenomenon and is in serious decline in the US. As it has clearly long outlived its historic raison d’etre (and is rarely to be found in a condition either of the Wesleys would recognize) this is perhaps unsurprising.

What is abundantly clear is that the heartland of Christianity has shifted dramatically over this period from first world to third world; and that Christianity is decreasingly institutional. This may partly be due to the abiding protestant sin of schism (every man a pope in his own parish); but part is also due to the fact that mission is necessarily, initially, untidy.

A millennium and a half on from “Mission England”, a different sort of untidiness emerges. Much of our energy is dissipated on the huge collection of surplus to requirements church buildings.

Half of our Anglican buildings were built before 1500 – mainly in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. (One of the few light-hearted moments in these statistics is to notice that the Roman Catholics built no churches in England until the middle of the sixteenth century!) Up till then it was all Anglicans! Thirty per cent were built in the last century in the fit of Victorian enthusiasm that followed the population census. (This revealed that if everyone came to church on the same Sunday they couldn’t all get in. Answer – new churches, many of which have stood empty ever since.)

We have some 16,281 churches. The Roman Catholics have only 23% of that number for slightly more people. The Free Churches return is staggering 17,000+ churches. Their average membership is 74 souls, ours 105 and the R.C.’s over 500.

With this number of churches, if every soul in the land came on Sunday the average would be 1500 people per church.

Given the amount of time, energy and finance that goes into this unsustainable project, some major rationalization is inevitable. Most deaneries, like my own, contain three or four scarcely-used buildings of no architectural merit, belonging to parish churches that cannot even fill themselves, but which vainly strive to maintain parasitical remnants of long-forgotten “outreach” projects.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the analysis of age groups attending church. In particular concern has been expressed about the devastating fall in children’s and young people’s attendance. In the Church of England 1991 saw 223,000 young people in church on a Sunday. By 1996 only 133,000 were left. On current projections, that will be down to a mere 88,000 this year! It is little consolation to find that every denomination has suffered a significant percentage shift in its congregation from young to old. The 15-30 age groups are the bleak heartland of the missing but, as churches are substantially middle class organizations and we send our children off to college and watch them move around for work and career before settling down, if at all, this is scarcely surprising.

What is interesting (and alarming) is that even these churches with a strong emphasis on youth work like Methodists, Baptists and Pentecostals have suffered uniformly with the rest. Many factors may be at work here from the boom in Sunday sport to the ruthless secularization of schools in the state sector. What these figures seem to reveal is that where churches or church plants set out to appeal to the young, they do not convert people but merely steal them from the parishes and weaken the balance and life of the basic unit.

The apparently huge growth in the percentage of church population over 65 is largely illusory. The number of actual attenders remains constant, except when trimmed by mortality. People tend to remain faithful on the home straight, and the overall decline gives that constancy added weight.

The make-up of churches by gender is also informative though does not yet have the figures for this decade. Between 1979 and 1989 most denominations kept to a 45/55 male/female ratio. The stark change is noticeable only in the ‘feminizing’ churches (i.e. Anglican, Methodist and URC) where 39/61, 37/63 and 37/63 are now the respective proportions. If this trend continues, in Anglicanism at least, and the spectacular fall in children’s attendance continues, then two of the great feminist propaganda arguments for priestesses will have been show to be utterly and disastrously unfounded. Christianity as a hobby for ladies of a certain age and certain view, obviously holds little appeal for men and boys; and even less for real Christian women.

The dramatic downward trend in infant baptism (347,000 in 1970) continues from 186,000 in 1990 to a projected 122,000 this year. Adult baptism climbs gradually towards 50,000 p.a., making some compensation for the overall losses But with confirmation figures down to 41,000 p.a. it is clear that many priests have no need to trouble a bishop for this particular sacrament. In gender terms this equates to 1 man and 1.5 women p.a. for every congregation in the country.

All the major denominations have suffered serious decline over the last forty years with the notable exception of Pentecostal / charismatic and Eastern Orthodox. Within denominations there are observable trends. For example Anglicanism, in the last ten years, throws up some interesting and dramatic switches. Evangelicals – widely believed to have grown – have, in fact, sustained a 3% loss. But within evangelicalism the label changing has been dramatic. “Broad” evangelicals have declined by 47%, “Charismatic” by 16% – presumably they jumped ship to friendlier premises in the burgeoning “new churches” category – whole “mainstream” evangelicals have increased by 68%.

Some of this may be accounted for by the 160,000 growth in ‘independent’ or ‘new’ churches; and the rest, possibly, because no-one calls themselves “broad” anymore? The self defining “liberals” have, curiously, only declined by 11%.

The remarkable figure is the Anglo-Catholics who have maintained the same numbers in spite of institutional prejudice, persecution and a large number of clerical and lay defections to Rome. It is too early to say whether this is the result of evangelism or transfer by disgruntled neighbours from parishes with priestesses or hostile vicars.

The category describing itself as simply “broad” has seen a 19% fall. No doubt, some of those have been honest enough to transfer across to the liberal column, and have stopped calling themselves ‘catholic’ at all.

It is worth noting that churches are badged by their incumbents and not their tradition, so that the huge increase in evangelical clergy is enough to “rebadge” many churches.

What is fascinating is that, out of the 980,000 Anglicans attending church each Sunday 178,000 are listed as Anglo-Catholic. In spite of everything, then, one in five Anglicans have stood their ground. This is no small feat when you consider that almost all of their bishops have been replaced by men hell bent on destroying the catholic tradition. Anglo-Catholics have been worst hit in areas where they had a sympathetic bishop previously and, when the new man came in they were largely unprepared. Growth has occurred where parishes had got used to years of liberal bullying and were well able to stand up to foul play. Persecution, as many before the present bench of bishops have discovered, is almost always counter productive.

I want to dwell on the Anglo-Catholic statistics for a moment longer because they really are quite shocking…and encouraging.

If one had asked the average Anglo-Catholic in 1990 if he believed that 1 in 5 worshipping Anglicans was Anglo-Catholic, the answer would most certainly have been “NO”. That it should be so (and the only stable figure) a decade later is remarkable in itself. Add to this the fact that a not insignificant number of orthodox ‘Forward in Faith’ parishes would not badge themselves as ‘Anglo-Catholic’ and you begin to see that the numbers are, if anything, an understatement. FinF is but the tip of the iceberg of those who reject the modernisers’ bankrupt experiments.

No doubt all of these statistics will be mulled over for months to come, and interim conclusions drawn. Some Anglican apologists will find comfort in the fact that European Anglicanism is not going down the Swanee at a noticeably faster rate than its Liberal Protestant counterparts. Others will point out, correctly, that while Rome will just about hold its ground in Europe as a whole, the English branch is now cantering downhill at the same rate as we are.

What might be more instructive would be to look at what makes the growing churches grow. We have noticed that spectacular growth is a third world feature. Some of the Lambeth liberal hierarchs seem to think this is purely because third worlders are primitive, emotional and scarcely educated. The truth is that the leaders of these “primitive” churches often have better degrees, from the same universities, as their critics. They, however, have not imbibed the deadly cocktail of 19th Century German rationalist theology and the shuddering banality of much modern liturgy.

On the whole their preaching is long, studied, passionate and biblical. Africans do not expect to be out of church in 59 minutes! Their prayer is fervent and expectant and their worship, whether liturgical or non-liturgical is powerful and experiential. “The Lord is here” is not a mumbled embarrassment but a statement of sacramental certainty. Nor is morality a piece of cloth to be cut according to secular fashion.

Compare these qualities with the traditions that are bucking the trend in modern Britain.

Contrary to all cultural pressure, the Eastern Orthodox community, with its transcendent liturgy and its biblical exposition at once fundamental and mystical, has defied the odds and experienced slow but steady growth. Clearly this is not as a result of its accessibility, marketing, moral accommodation or consumer friendly posture.

The Baptists, least liberalized of the protestant groups, have shown the least decline in recent years

The Anglo-Catholics, in spite of many departures have held their numbers with their focus on glorious worship and a growing emphasis on scriptural fidelity.

And the Pentecostals, who have shown spectacular growth with their very fundamental concentration on preaching and presence have just overtaken the Orthodox and are on their way to a quarter of a million.

These may be just straws in the wind but it would be foolish to ignore the emerging message that transcends history, continents and cultures.

Anaemic liturgy, doctrinal uncertainty and wobbly morals convert no-one and retain less and less of those who joined for the gospel.

The liberal experiment is dead. It is the English church’s tragedy that so many of those who have inflicted it on the faithful and on the nation remain at the helm.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s.